Détente: USA and USSR

by Vaibhav


Détente is a French word, meaning positive development of relations between two countries which were not on good terms previously. The USA and USSR had been involved in a cold war since the end of World War II. Often having antagonistic interests and an extremely contrary approach to administration, there came a period in the late 1960s where both these nations, due to various internal and external matters, were made to partake in peaceful and progressive, yet lucrative conduct.

In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev took over the office in the USSR. The Brezhnev era was marked by specific features. Historian Alec Nove comments that it was the era in which the USSR increased its foreign trade substantially, more so with the capitalist world. Another such feature was Detente. The grounds laying the possibility of Detente could be observed in the early 1960s. In 1962, the USA discovered the USSR missiles in the communist country Cuba, felt threatened, and announced that any attack on the Western hemisphere by the USSR, would be considered an attack on the USA. Also threatened the USSR by thermonuclear war, if the missiles from Cuba were not removed. This Cuban Missile crisis propelled the USSR to build more strategic weapons, eventually making them cut a larger share of the budget to aid the acquisition of arms and ammunition. The above-mentioned series of events led the USSR to want to bridge the gap between itself and the USA.

Why Detente? : Reasons

Common Grounds

During the 1960s, both superpowers had nuclear ammunition enough to claim ‘assured destruction capability. There was a consensus between them that the production of nuclear weapons would only aggravate international tension. One is left wondering what other purpose did they think the production of nuclear weapons would serve. Anyhow, they agreed to keep a check on the aforementioned and signed 3 arms agreements between 1972 and 1979. The root cause of the initiation of such agreements could be found in the abilities of their rivals to destroy the other state, making adopting a positive attitude towards each other look more like a compromise than generosity. Soviet Diplomat Robin Edmonds states, the determination to not destroy each other may seem a negative approach at the outset but in order to survive, the nuclear power nations have to, eventually, build up a virtually cordial relationship.

3 arm agreements

1. SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks)

The first SALT agreement was signed in 1972. By this time, the USA had 1500 nuclear warheads and USSR 1054. Conclusively, the superiority in terms of nuclear weapons was not exclusive to the USA, furthermore, the concept of nuclear weapon superiority at all was negated. The agreement limited the frequency of deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems.

2. Helsinki

In 1975, the USA, the USSR, and 30 other countries signed the treaty in Helsinki. It spanned over 3 sets dealing with various aspects of politics, trade, economics, and international relations.

➢ Dealing with political and diplomatic issues and issues regarding Human rights, mainly encompassing freedom of thought and religion.

➢ Dealing with economic issues, scientific exchanges, and trade relations. By signing this, the USSR hoped to gain access to better technology of the west.

➢ Dealing with improvement and extension of international contacts.


SALT II was signed in 1979. Like SALT I, it was also specifically curated by and for the USA and the USSR, who, on the basis of their arsenals, were continuously growing in stature. It set a ceiling of 2250 strategic delivery systems, effective from 1981, and put a limitation on the cruise missiles with a range of over 6oo kilometers. It also put a ceiling on the significantly more lethal MIRVed missiles, which could carry more than 1 nuclear warhead.

USSR’s interests

The reasons which made the USSR look forward to Detente were multifarious, ranging from international interests, technology, influence in a foreign land, etc.


1. The USSR wanted to protect its interest in Europe and East Asia.

2. Detente was also going to help the USSR to deploy troops along the Chinese border down south.

3. The USSR was looking for an opportunity to increase its influence in 3rd world countries. Detente would have given the Soviet Union some time off the USA to focus on other international affairs.

4. The USA, at that point in time, had a clear technological advantage over the rest of the powerful nations. The USSR also wanted to improve its relations to get access to the advanced technology of the West.

5. Financial strain looming large on the Soviet Union (larger than on the US) - Former Diplomat R. Edmonds states that after 1965, the USSR military budget increased significantly, sometimes at the cost of other domains. He also mentions that the strain was more on the USSR and not as much on the USA. Corroborated by the data given by American historian Michael Kort, stating that in the late 1960s, the USSR was spending 15-25% of the GNP on the military, whereas the USA was only spending 6%.

USA’s interests

Due to the ceased existence of the nuclear power advantage or the absent prospect of their usefulness, the two superpowers were looking to develop a symbiotic relationship.


1. The USA was having a difficult time in Vietnam. The USSR is one of the most powerful nations, could have provided effective support to the USA and that was what the USA was looking for.

2. Another reason propelling the USA was the business prospects the American businessmen were looking at. They sought profit and Detente would have come with many such lustrously lucrative opportunities.

Trade Agreements

In 1972, a three-year grain deal was signed between the two nations, the USSR was to get American wheat in large quantities. It was followed by a joint trade commission which aimed at settling the Soviet Lend-Lease debt to the US. In the next few years, a significant increment in trading affairs was speculated, making the aggregate reach a thousand and a half million dollars. The commodities included oil, gas, and grain. The Soviet Union made a deal with the Occidental Petroleum Company, aiming at the development of oil and natural gas. The 5-year period (1973-78) is known as the ‘Highwater mark of Detente’.

Decline of Detente

In the late 1970s, the US senate started speaking against the deals signed under Detente. Their argument specifically against SALT II was that it favored the USSR. The US body ratified the agreements, they even boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest. In 1981, conservative and anti-communist leader Ronald Reagan became the 40th US President. The shift of power in the US marked the downfall of Detente. A new deal by the name INF was started, regarding the intermediate-range nuclear forces. The arms agreement by the name SALT was modified and renamed as START, still no progress was made because of the disparity in the number of forces possessed by the two countries. The US wanted the USSR to destroy all its triple warhead SS20s, which the USSR was not willing to do. In return, the Soviet Union asked the USA to dismantle their Forward-based systems along with giving up on the plan of deploying the Pershing II weaponry. The talks could not arrive at any solution. Ultimately, the talks were called off in November 1923, marking the end of Detente.

Picture Credits to Time Magazine and Jack Davis, American Art Collaborative

About the Author

Vaibhav is a history enthusiast with an interest in writing. He has completed his graduation in History Honors from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. He reads and writes on caste, class, communities, world history, and other such cross-sectional social science topics.

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